Raising two sons is one of the most challenging tasks I have ever undertaken.  Definitely rewarding, but certainly a task for the stout-hearted.

There is nothing I want more than for my sons to walk in the way of faith I have taught them.  I believe their devotion to God will contribute more to their future happiness than education, career, power, love, or money.  I certainly want them to make wise decisions about each of these too, but the love of a woman without the acceptance of God is ultimately meaningless.  A good job with no greater purpose for the work of one’s hands is ultimately unrewarding.  What education about true life is complete without an awareness of the Creator?  I want my boys to walk in the way of Jesus.

Hence, the “competing stories” for life pose a great threat to all I am working for in my family (and in my ministry, but that is another topic entirely).  These other “metanarratives” offer a way of seeing and living life that I do not believe are anchoring in truth and, therefore, do not lead in the best way to the Author of Truth and to the kind of life that He engineered to be fulfilling.

What are some of those “competing stories,” at least in my American context?

The Power Metanarrative:  The ability to control one’s own life is the supreme value. Be strong enough to bring your will to pass in your world.  Through skill, hard work, intimidation, or pure monopoly rise to the top and dominate, maybe nicely, but be the top dog, for sure.

The Work Metanarative:  You are what you do.  You are defined by your work and you are only worth what your work is worth.  You must be a self-made man.  True reward is found in what you can produce with your own two hands.  Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.

The Pleasure Metanarrative:  Happiness is found in the high that comes from satisfying one’s desires.  Those may be physical desires for sex or food or comfort.  Those may be emotional desires for acceptance or ego-stroking.  You are happiest when you feel good and feel good about yourself.

The Materialistic Metanarrative:  The truest realities are material, so gather as much as possible.  It seems this life is all we have because anything else is hard to prove materially, so end this life with the greatest number of toys.  Money helps, so stay in school, work hard, and do whatever is necessary to increase the flow of capital into your life.

The Romance Metanarrative:  There is no feeling more satisfying that the love of another person.  Find your “soul-mate” and you will find fulfillment.  The greatest curse is to be alone.  Your worth is determined by your lover.  Your soul is completed by another.

I am sure there are others.  These are the one’s that fit me first.  Of course, there is truth hidden in each of these, as corrupted as each has now become.  Love is a divine virtue.  We are material people in a material world.  We have work to do on this planet.  Pleasure does feel good.  Free people need the ability to self-govern.  The issue comes when each of these are elevated to such a level that they themselves become our sources of meaning, our avenues for fulfillment, really, our gods.

I want more for my boys.  There is no greater love than that found in God.  Our souls were made by God and He holds the key to true fulfillment.  Productive work is just a way to worship God.  Physical and emotional pleasures fade long before the pleasure of God’s acceptance.  God is best qualified to hold the keys of power.  Life lived in submission to God and service to others: this is what I want for my sons.  So the “competing stories” of our culture concern me as I prepare them to understand these stories as counterfeit narratives that offer false “happy endings.”

It would appear this is the same motivation a wise man named Luqman had so many years ago.  According to translator Ali, little is known of Luqman for sure.  His wisdom is so storied that a whole tradition of wise saying has arisen around him, not unlike Aesop.  Luqman is also thought to have lived a long time.  What is clear from this passage is Luqman’s desire for his son to walk in the ways of God and to be careful of people who tell “distracting tales” intended to lead him away from “God’s way” (31:6).  Today’s surah is largely the recounting of the counsel of Luqman to his son.

Keep up the prayer, my son; command what is right; forbid what is wrong; bear anything that happens to you steadfastly: these are things to be aspired to. (31:17)

Fathers — back then or today — want the same for our sons: devotion to God in a world of competing stories.

I am interested to know what a modern-day, orthodox, spiritual Muslim would say are the “competing stories” of this world?  What metanarratives are being offered up to us and our children that work against all that the Qur’an is working for?

I just have a few notable passages from today’s reading.

He [Allah] makes Satan’s insinuations a temptation only for the sick at heart and those whose hearts are hardened — the evildoers are profoundly opposed [to the Truth] — and He causes those given knowledge to realize that this Revelation is your Lord’s Truth, so that they may believe in it and humble their hearts to Him: God guides the faithful to the straight path.  (22:53-54)

According to these ayahs, unbelief is due to spiritual weakness and stubbornness.  If you want to believe, you can. 

He [Allah] will give a generous provision to those who migrated in God’s way and were killed or died: He is the Best Provider.  He will admit them to a place that will please them.  (22:58-59)

Dying for Allah brings great reward.  Of course, we all know that some have done ugly things with verses like these. 

It is He [Allah] who gave you [people] life, will cause you to die, then will give you life again.  (22:66)

Creation–De-creation–Re-creation: this is the same cycle that is foundational to the biblical story, and it goes way beyond a literal life, death, and resurrection.

[Prophet], you can see the hostility on the faces of the disbelievers when Our messages are recited clearly to them: it is almost as if they are going to attack those who recite Our messages to them.  Say, “Shall I tell you what is far worse than what you feel now?  The Fire that God has promised the disbelievers!  What a dismal end!”  (22:72)

People find the message of God unpleasant right now.  It might mean change or risk.  But the punishment of Hell that will come later is way worse.  Think long-term. 

You people [idolaters], here is an illustration, so listen carefully: those you call on beside God could not, even if they combined all their forces, create a fly, and if a fly took something away from them, they would not be able to retrieve it.  How feeble are the petitioners and how feeble are those they petition! (22:73)

Owned!   

The Muslims can argue over “battle gains” from the Battle of Badr if they want to but the “good” can easily become “bad” if they push this too far.  Disbelievers will receive punishment in the end; are they sure they want to argue and show a profound lack of trust in God?  So is the gist of today’s passage

It is 8:31 that has caught my attention today:

Whenever Our [Allah’s] Revelation [the Qur’an] is recited to them they say, “We have heard all this before — we could say something like this if we wanted — this is nothing but ancient fables.”

That is really the question, isn’t it?  Is there anything about this revelation that is new, unique, unheard of?  Could this be made up or is there something so unlike the stories told before that makes the revelations of Muhammad stand out as unparalleled? 

Of course, the same questions needs to be asked of every other “grand story” or metanarrative for life.  Is this just the same story people have always told or is it something special? 

The same question needs to be asked of the “stories” by which people today live:

  • Materialism — only that which can be sensed is real and capable of truly satisfying our needs and wants, so gather all you can
  • Nationalism — my nation is superior to all others and as long as we remain strong, rich, and intimidating we can ensure the best kind of life possible
  • Hedonism — physical pleasure will fulfill like nothing else so “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”
  • Egoism — “I” am most important so look at me, love me, want me, give me attention because there is no better experience than when I am the trending topic
  • Romance — the love of the perfect mate will satisfy you like nothing else can

Are these really new, unique stories or is this just another “ancient fable?”  Wouldn’t we agree that as long as people have lived they have lived their lives by these stories?  Across time, gender, race, or socioeconomic level people have lived these stories.  Nationalism did not stop Rome from falling; will it stop America or China or Iran?  Whether the “I” was Caesar, Rameses, Napoleon, or Lady Gaga, “I” seems to end up empty and alone.  Is Bill Gates any more immortal than Tutankhamen or Solomon?  These are no new stories.  “We could say something like this if we wanted!”

And what about the “story” or metanarrative of Jesus?  Is it any different?  Is the way of Christ unique?

The God who created the world in power, majesty and love desired a relationship with his creation so much that he condescended to take on flesh and become a creature as well.  The God who is so holy that he is offended by sin is also so loving that He takes on the very punishment of sin and pays the price for human rebellion Himself.  The God who rules all things displays his ultimate power through the resurrection of the One who died, therefore overthrowing the twin forces feared by all human beings, Evil and Death.  The God who is so demanding He requires holiness of His followers also agrees to live within His followers as the empowering presence that makes holiness a reality.  This God invites all people regardless of past failures to find the greatest fulfillment in a life lived for others and in advancement of a kingdom that is not our own. 

What other god does that?  What other god would dare?  What other god would become so vulnerable?  What other god thinks that much of the creation?  What other story champions grace?  What other story says dependence produces worthiness, not work?  What other story says fulfillment comes through self-sacrifice?  What other story says the way up is down?  Is that a unique story, the kind that people haven’t “heard before?”  It seems so to me.

And what about the story told by Muhammad?  Is it something new, different, and unique?  That is the question the “disbelievers” of Muhammad’s time were asking.  It is also the question we are asking this year, isn’t it?